Politics & Policy

Winning for Religious Freedom

Arriaga with Little Sisters of the Poor outside the Supreme Court (Photo: Becket Fund)
Kristina Arriaga, freedom fighter

Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz is the executive director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. She’s had a busy, news-making, historic few days. Last week she stood on stage with Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel to honor her former boss, Armando Valladares, who spent 22 years as a political prisoner in Cuba. This week she got word from the Supreme Court that Becket had made a compelling enough case to throw Zubik v. Burwell — the case over the Department of Health and Human Services abortion-drug, contraception, female-sterilization mandate whose most famous plaintiff by now is the Little Sisters of the Poor — back down to the lower courts, even without the presence of the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Court. And she also was appointed by the speaker of the House to succeed Robert P. George on the U.S. International Religious Freedom Commission. We talk a little about all of this. – KJL

Kathryn Jean Lopez: How did your succeeding Robert P. George on the Commission on International Religious Freedom arise?

Kristina Arriaga: I was honored when the speaker’s office called to tell me that several people had recommended and supported the appointment. It’s quite a privilege, since Professor Robert George leaves some very large shoes to fill. I told both Professor George and the speaker’s office that I was honored to succeed him and hope to continue his legacy at the Commission.

Lopez: Why is the Commission on International Religious Freedom important? What do you personally hope to accomplish there?

Arriaga: The Commission is the only organization of its kind in the world. It conducts in-depth investigations, issues reports, and makes recommendations to the president and to the Department of State on religious-liberty violations abroad. It raises awareness of these human-rights violations. At a time when religious liberty is often considered and treated by many countries as the eccentric uncle of the human-rights family, the United States continues to promote it as a core value and as an essential element to national and international stability. I think the U.S. must continue to be a beacon of light and a leader in the world of human rights.

RELATED: Religious Liberty: The Necessary Fight

Lopez: Last week you honored Armando Valladares at the Becket Fund’s annual dinner. Elie Wiesel spoke words of tribute to him. What did that all mean to you? How was it to be on stage with them both? 

Arriaga: I first met Armando Valladares in 1986. He was on a book tour promoting his New York Times bestselling memoir, Against all Hope. I ended up working for him for over ten years including three years in Geneva, Switzerland, at the U.N. I often traveled to conferences with him. In 1992, I spent a day with him and Elie Wiesel in Lyon, France, at the old Gestapo headquarters. The building had been renovated and turned into the Resistance Museum. It was in that very building that the Nazi torturer Klaus Barbie killed thousands of Jews and Christians in such a horrific manner that it earned him the nickname “the butcher of Lyon.” Both Wiesel and Valladares — victims of brutal torture themselves — spoke to each other privately, and then at the conference, about the need to reject any ideology that fostered hatred. They said it was hatred that would end humanity, by killing it from the inside of each person’s heart. It struck me then that I had no idea of what real forgiveness and love meant. I have never endured the suffering they have endured. I wondered if I would have the courage to bear even a fraction of it, let alone rise from that experience with forgiveness and love in my heart instead of hatred. It was an inspiring and humbling experience. I felt just as humbled as I heard them last week, now in their older years, calling for each one of us to become a witness to the truth.

Lopez: I ran into you with our dear friend Sister Constance Veit this week on the way back from your joint Fox appearance. What does it mean to you to be defending the likes of the Little Sisters of the Poor?

Arriaga: When I work for the Little Sisters, I believe I am working for and protecting the rights of all Americans who want to serve others. If the government can tell the Sisters they must violate their faith, what will the government be able to tell the rest of us? I am also particularly invested in this cause because the Little Sisters’ calling to care for the elderly hits home. My father spent three long years dying of complications from Parkinson’s Disease. Towards the end of his life, he weighed less than 100 pounds and was paralyzed from the neck down. His teeth shifted, he had a feeding tube, and he had dementia. Initially, my mother looked for nursing homes and hospices, but they were depressing terrible places — even the most expensive ones. Often the staff would not even look at the patients as they treated them.

At the Sisters’ bright and cheerful homes, even the sickest of the elderly are treated humanely, lovingly, and with dignity. At the end of our lives, do we want to spend our last moments at a government-run nursing home or with people who see in us the person we once were and still are? If the Sisters’ ministry was crushed, if the government got its way, there would be 13,000 fewer elderly who were loved until God called them to Himself. Every religiously inspired ministry — whether a homeless shelter, a halfway house, a soup kitchen, a hospital, or a nursing home — will be at risk of being shut down by the government unless we continue to protect their right to operate in the manner they are called to do.

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Lopez: Why is this religious-liberty work Becket does so important?

Arriaga: Because religious liberty is the core of who we are as human beings. When we call it our first freedom, we mean it. It is fundamental to every other individual liberty. If a human being isn’t free to search for truth, and then to act on the convictions he or she forms in that search, then there is no freedom. And in a practical sense, the work we do cements that freedom for Americans of all faiths and diverse backgrounds. We get immediate relief for our clients, but more importantly, we set crucial precedent in the courts. In a society that is more often concerned with policy than principle, I think the work we do stands out. It’s not enough to know the principle — you have to fight for it.

RELATED: NR Explainer: The Little Sisters of the Poor at the Supreme Court

Lopez: Have you had a favorite client? Or if you won’t play favorites, a poster client who tells you just about everything anyone ever needed to know about religious freedom?

Arriaga: I don’t have a favorite, and I could give you a long list of people who have been perfect examples of why we do what we do. But Pastor Robert Soto is pretty compelling. His case is a great example of bureaucracy gone insane. There is a law that prevents people from owning bird feathers — feathers from over 800 birds, not even just endangered ones. Members of federally recognized tribes are allowed to apply for permits, and then the Department of the Interior can issue them bird feathers (but of course, they take them back when you die). So Pastor Soto is a Christian Native American, a pastor of a church and a member of the Lipan Apache tribe. An undercover federal agent confiscated his eagle feathers, which are sacred to his tribe and his faith, because his tribe isn’t federally recognized. And the government makes it ridiculously difficult to become federally recognized. But they don’t just leave the unrecognized ones alone — no, they send undercover federal agents on hundred-mile roadtrips to disrupt family powwows and confiscate bird feathers. Then they threaten the “offenders” with enormous fines and jail time. That’s what Pastor Soto faced, until we stepped in. We got his feathers back. His case is really emblematic — it’s all about who’s in control.

Lopez: Why don’t you think religious liberty today resonates in a way that makes for a movement of people marching in the streets to defend it?

Arriaga: I said earlier that our society is often more interested in policy than principle. When people let themselves be convinced that it’s “kind” or “tolerant” to scrub the public square of evidence of religion, then you get a broad acceptance of government restrictions on religious freedom. But we’ve been seeing such a huge assault on individual liberties — such as speech on college campuses — and I think that’s going to turn the tide. People are beginning to see just how insidious it is when public institutions put straitjackets on expression.

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Lopez: Does the accusation that the Little Sisters, or anyone else who opposes the HHS mandate, are waging a “war on women” of some sort — or trying to take away birth control or impose theology on people who don’t want it — drive you batty?

Arriaga: It makes me sad. It’s such a fundamental misunderstanding of the case, and such a willful ignorance of the Little Sisters’ convictions. Objectively speaking, the government’s case has been weak from the very beginning. First the government promised it would exempt religious groups. Then it spent years in fighting us in Court and meanwhile issuing nine (!) versions of the same HHS regulation — ostensibly to improve it — but still without exempting the Sisters. Weirdly, the government did not rely on Title VII to define religious groups; instead it relied on an IRS code. Meanwhile, they exempted their own military health-care plans from this requirement; they exempted their own health care for the disabled from this requirement. They even exempted big companies like Pepsi and Exxon. But they refused to exempt the Little Sisters’ homes. All in all, over 100 million Americans are not bound by this mandate but the Sisters are. So finally, earlier this year, at the Supreme Court, after years of threatening the Sisters with $70 million in fines per year, the government conceded there were ways to distribute services such as the week-after pill without involving a small order of Catholic nuns. This conflict was so unnecessary. In fact, just last week the president himself admitted the HHS mandate was not necessary.

Lopez: What are you most grateful for?

Arriaga: Freedom. My family. Our health. I have so much to be grateful for — that in itself is a blessing.

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